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We board the Sunset Limited
In New Orleans. Tracks pass through
Louisiana and East Texas. We chug
west so that mountains grow higher and
higher, weather dryer, then dryer.
A long way from Mississippi, our
home. Daddy can only pay for the trip
every two years. So I am age one, three,
five, with mother and later my baby
sister whom soldiers want to hold. We do
not go when I am seven, since a car full
of Mother’s west coast relatives decide
to come to us. When I’m nine, we go at Christmas.
Santa Claus brings only tiny things to California
but I don’t care. On the way out, I sit
by a French woman with her perfect chignon
and perfume that sweetens the whole train car.
On the way back, I sniff my own vanilla cologne
Santa remembered to take to the small desert town
to my aunt’s house with no chimney near Bakersfield.

I am a perfect child on slow locomotives,
taking three days from a southern city to a western
stop. Three lonely days back. I do not need games,
even books, which I love. My fulltime pastime
for seventy-two hours is looking out the window.
Watching scenes change. Going back, I sit by and talk
to the same classy lady from New Orleans, the one
I accompanied before. I tell her about my Christmas.
(She often says “Oui.” But I don’t know what that
means. Is she saying “us” — she and I?) We move east.

But I don’t want to leave Yuma with the Indian
women outside selling jewelry or El Paso with its name
in white on the mountain, or even the Embarcadero in L.A.
From Arizona, I want to keep the strange Joshua
trees, grown mysteriously from dry desert sand.
Sometimes we sleep in a private compartment, if we
can get one, or on the Pullman car. But that holiday
Daddy can’t reserve either one — since we decide to go
(without him) late in the season. We head to Mama’s folks:
aunts, an uncle, seventeen cousins, Mawmaw and Papaw,
who moved from Mississippi and left Mama, married.
I simply cannot wait to get there — to family, waiting.
Won’t they be so excited to see us?

We eat in the gracious, moving dining car.
White linen napkins, oatmeal and bran muffins,
new to me. I always want three. And those nice porters!
I listen to the chug, chugging of the steam locomotive,
Then the more modern diesels pull us. I love balancing
when we risk walking from car to car. Holding on
tight — to something — in order not to fall, since
the outside door sways. We push open the heavy doors.

I would live forever on that moving home when
we are going west. But I always hate crossing
back over the big, muddy Mississippi — on our
own side of the country — heading to my same house
in the South. I decorate my room once in barren, sand-
colored tones of desert, with artificial cacti around.
Some western souvenirs. Then I pretend I am still
being transported there. On that train, riding.

- Maneuvers


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